We got back to work on Monday, business needs and hustling to get the house ready for winter kept us more than busy, and the days began to slip by, almost without notice. As they tend to do, those slippery days added up into weeks, then months, and before any of us really knew it, September 5 had arrived. This might not mean anything, but our ABC meetings had produced a consensus: If the Biters, as Jennifer insisted we call them–and why not?–if they wanted to meander into our territory in force without raising any red flags to law enforcement, early September was when they might well give it a shot. Shot being the operative word. The fifth of September was opening day for deer and elk in Montana this year, archery only. There was a weird two day season (rifles okay) for youth only on October 15 and 16. I say weird because, come on, if you’re going to hump on out there with a long gun, hoping to wipe out Bambi’s Dad as a rite of passage into manhood, for cry-yi, gut it up and compete with the men. Otherwise, what are you proving? Wow, I got my deer; now I’m a certified youth! Big whoop.
But I didn’t make the rules; I just had to work with ’em.
Not that we planned to ignore the Youth Only season. Seed and Beets had made us keenly aware of the fact that we might be facing kids in mortal combat, or at least people who looked like kids. The individuals the former assassins had encountered in the Upper Peninsula would all be of age by now, but newer crops of juvenile delinquent monster makers could be expected, right?
The biggest window of opportunity for Heartbite, at least before the first of the year, would begin on October 24, when the general rifle season on deer and elk opened. Some of the population pundits claimed hunting in Montana was down by quite a bit, but we hadn’t seen any indication of that in our neck of the woods. Deer got a lot of attention. So did elk. The entire Trace ranch was posted, the perimeter clearly marked as a No Hunting zone. So was Jack Hill’s property, and now the Kirk/Robertson acreage as well. But if history was any indication, we could expect a few dumbass rifle toters to slip through the barbed wire fences, ignoring the signs, defying the owners. Most of these idiots seemed to come from the Missoula area, but not all. When found, the outlaws were usually encouraged to leave with a few well placed rounds plowing into the dirt around their feet, but a squad of true invaders posing as poachers might think that was a pretty good, low risk deal. Plenty of cover, and if they did get caught, they could beg off with the innocent though ignorant hunter routine.
Archery enthusiasts were few in number compared to gun toters, making the rifle season the biggest threat in one way, but then again, it was legal to hunt in camouflage if you were bow hunting. We definitely felt amping up our war footing on September 5 was something we needed to do, just in case.
Of course, there really wasn’t any truly safe day. There were so many hunting seasons in Montana, you could pretty much pick any date and find a critter to match it. Rifle season for wolves ran all the way from September 15 on up through March 15, for example. Heck, turkeys and black bears were fair game during parts of April and May. The no-hunting-anything season part of the year, basically mid-spring through August, was over and done with. My gut said the Heartbite War would get under way sometime during the coming colder months.
Crap. I definitely did not feel ready. Not that I ever would.
“Hey, boss.” Judi grinned up at me from her desk as I made my way from the shop into the office. July had been an unexciting month, but Rodeo Iron’s growth had taken off again in early August and showed no signs of slowing. We weren’t exactly certain why that was so, though the new shop expansion and production line updates certainly contributed. I’d need to find a worthy franchisee to take the eastern portion of the state before long, though, or face the wrath of too much success. We simply couldn’t expand again without putting more than fifty people on the payroll or cutting the welders to part time status to avoid Obamacare requirements. Neither of those options was acceptable.
Thankfully, North Dakota and Idaho were both in good shape, both growing at respectable rates but neither close to the fifty employee ceiling. Another year or two, maybe, but we had a bit of breathing room for now.
“Yo, Mama.” I grinned back. I couldn’t help it when she greeted me that way with eyes sparkling and her baby bump showing. Not showing that much, but definitely showing. She said she’d felt Willow move. Neither Sissy nor I had caught up to that yet, but hey, mommies first. Jude had never experienced morning sickness even once and had exactly zero miserable symptoms, at least that she let me know about. Jennifer Trace had shaken her fist at the expecting mother in mock envy. How dare you! I was sicker than most of the legislation passed in Washington with every one of my kids, and then they all turned out rotten to boot. Here you come, be-bopping around without a care in the world, and your baby is probably going to end up a treasure to your heart. It’s not fair, I tell you. Not fair! The ranch widow’s act had launched us all into a fit of laughter. Even the usually stoic Horace Tamblyn had lost it. The woman should have been on stage; she was that good. “How’s it hanging?”
“If by it you mean our precious Willow,” she replied primly, “I’d say she’s hanging pretty much dead center today.”
“That’s good.” Not that I had any idea where she was supposed to be hanging. Not really. Nor did I want to know. I was picking up a fair amount of prenatal knowledge by osmosis, listening to Sissy and Judi go on in the evenings, but it wasn’t something I was proud of. The women have ’em; the men protect ’em. That’s my motto. Although I supposed I was going to get stuck holding my woman’s hand when the kid popped out. Unless she hated me for what I’d done to her and demanded Sissy’s hand instead. That would be a blessing. Sadly, she had two hands, so I wasn’t really likely to get out of it.
Not that I shared my thoughts on the subject with the girls. I had no interest in dealing with the fallout if I did that.
We didn’t get a chance for any more banter before Judi’s desk phone rang. Five minutes after quitting time, but she picked it up anyway; the red light on the third line button told her it was Jennifer Trace calling. She listened for about three seconds. “It’s for you.”
I cradled the phone between my left ear and shoulder, juggling the pile of completed work orders I’d brought in from the shop until my beloved jumped up–she was still agile–and grabbed the papers from me. “Yo, Jen.”
“Tree, Horace just called in on our private CB channel. One of the ranch hands thought he’d spotted something, so he went to check it out.”
“The hand went, or Horace did?” It made a difference. Horace Tamblyn wasn’t the ranch’s resident tracker for nothing. He was no spring chicken and his shot-up leg did tend to slow him down just a bit, but I wouldn’t have wanted him on my trail with bad intentions.
“Horace. He says he’s got a fix on a man in camouflage, packing a compound bow. He’d like your company, if you’ve got the time.” Careful wording; we were using the satellite phones.
“All the time in the world for that. Where’s he at?”
“Horace, or the man in camouflage?”
“Both, if he said.”
“The man with the bow is creeping through the willows, down in the bottoms at the south edge of the third field. Horace is hunkered down in that little patch of junipers, this side of there.”
“Got it. I’m on my way. Judi will be heading over to your house.”
“As expected.” We had a standing agreement my pregnant bride would never be left alone, and for good reason. “Thanks, Tree.”
I handed the phone back to Judi, spun on my heel, and exited the building. It would have been better if Sissy were present to back up the other two women, but she was still out there somewhere, making her final rounds for the day. I could call her in, but that seemed like overkill. The Trace ranch house was every bit as much a fortress as ours was, both women could and would shoot, and there was still plenty of daylight.
It made sense that a sign-ignoring hunter would try harvesting a whitetail buck from those willows. The creek bottom was pretty much whitetail heaven, all overgrown brush with deer trails spider webbing the entire area. Add to that the legend of the Bottoms Buck, an elusive ghost with a giant rack of antlers, and plenty of locals were tempted to transgress. But I knew Horace, and the old tracker didn’t use a word like creeping to describe an ordinary hunter. Stalking, yes. Walking, certainly. Sitting or standing, sure. Bumbling around, even, if the guy was a real greenhorn. But not creeping. Creeping indicated something else, something…sinister. Besides, Jennifer had every right to be concerned. At the moment, the third field hosted seventeen of her top rodeo bulls, quality bucking stock that not only put on a great show at the rodeos but could be counted upon to sire progeny with similar athletic skills. The top bull in the bunch was Eager Beaver, a big Charolais with an incredible enthusiasm for the sport. Even spectators in the stands could tell Beaver was showing off when he pranced around the arena after throwing a rider. I’d seen a few broncs like that, but only one bull. If the idiot in camouflage shot the Beav, accidentally or otherwise, he’d be killing not only one of the most popular bulls on the circuit but a big piece of Jennifer Trace’s heart as well.
Not to mention a money machine worth a cool hundred grand on the hoof, minimum.
I could have grabbed one of the ranch ATV’s to make the run through the fields, but the four wheelers were noisy. The Pontiac could make it, it was a lot quieter, and I had an impressive arsenal in the trunk. Considering the bad guy’s position and the lay of the land, I could pull right up behind the junipers without being compromised. Horace’s ranch Jeep was parked at the south edge of the second field, about midway; he’d been shadowing this guy on foot for a while.
Leaving the Grand Prix a few dozen yards short of Horace’s spying spot, I snagged the .25-06 and a set of binoculars from the trunk, making no attempt to scout the lay of the land. If Horace said there was one guy out there, that’s all there was.
It wasn’t hard to find the old man. All I had to do was decide what route I’d take if I was tracking and wanted to stop inside the juniper stand. When I got to my chosen point, though, I almost stepped on him. It’s amazing how invisible a man can make himself if he knows the art of remaining still. Easing myself down beside Tamblyn’s prone position, I took a look at which way his long barreled AK-47 on the bipod was pointing, followed that line, and sure enough, there the fool was. Neither one of us spoke. We didn’t have to; we’d hunted mutant wolves together. I got my binocs adjusted and put the glass on Mr. Creeper.
The target was sure enough creeping, all right. I’d never seen anything like it. Stocky man. He moved like…a caricature. A cartoon, perhaps? Yes. Absolutely. Freaking Elmer Fudd trying to sneak up on Bugs Bunny, thinking he’s tiptoeing silently, no doubt rustling every leaf and cracking every twig in the general vicinity of his boots. Montana hunting meets Looney Tunes, I thought. Which at first made me think he might indeed be one of our Heartbite enemies, come to scout us out or something on the first day of bow hunting season.
And then I recognized him.
“Nimrod Aaronson,” I whispered.
“Who the heck is that?” Horace whispered back.
“Moved into Lincoln a few months ago. I heard some of the welders talking about him, so I checked him out. Works from home, don’t know at what, but he hits the bars for an hour or two more nights than not, and he’s a talker. Nimrod’s a nickname, meaning either a great hunter–which he brags about being–or he’s an idiot. Pretty much everybody is voting for idiot.” I adjusted the focus on the binoculars a hair. “Seems he’s been saying he’s going to bag the Bottoms Buck, get himself listed in Boone and Crockett.”
We watched in silence for another minute or two. Did we want to brace this guy, relieve him of his weapon, and call the Sheriff’s Department, or crank up our weapons and dust him on out of there as we’d done with others in previous years? Either way presented problems. If we went the dusting route, this hunched over, high stepping faux hunter might not even realize he was being shot at. Or he might simply dive deeper into the bottoms and disappear completely, following one of the deer tunnels through the brush. Those tunnels required a man to either bend way over or go on all fours, but they weren’t that hard to utilize if a fellow had the motivation.
On the other hand, performing a citizen’s arrest was equally riddled with ugly possibilities. A hunter who didn’t move like a normal hunter was a bit of an unknown; he might be crazy enough to try something stupid if we threw down on him. Or he could have lawyers on retainer capable of turning the tables, making us out to be the bad guys for pointing our rifles at him. Montana law wasn’t the worst in the land when it came to that, but times they were a-changing; hauling trespassers off to jail was not the slam dunk it had been a few decades ago.
We were saved from needing to make a decision by Sissy. The battery powered Zimorti CB clipped to my belt clicked twice, her code. We’d purchased the Zimortis for everybody in the group. The founders were vehemently anti big government and pro privacy. With that in mind, they’d melded old school CB technology with some pretty slick computer chip programming without bouncing anything off of a satellite. Installing dozens of their patented mini-bouncers on fence posts and in tree tops around our various properties had given us the ability to stay in touch with each other 24/7 as long as we were on the Three Properties, i.e. the Trace ranch + Rodeo Iron base, Jack Hill’s acreage, or Kirk/Robertson. It hadn’t been cheap, but neither did we feel we had a choice; we needed every advantage we could get for the coming Heartbite War.
I clicked an acknowledgement code, followed by a pause and then three more clicks: Okay to talk, but whisper only. Two clicks meant okay to talk normally while one click demanded radio silence. Sissy’s whisper came back immediately. “You and Horace still in the junipers?”
“Yes,” I replied, wondering where this was going.
“Well…turns out we zeroed in on the same trespasser. That is, if you’re eyeballing Elmer Fudd.”
“Elmer it is. Where are you?”
“Working the bottoms from the far side. I spotted this guy’s vehicle parked near the property line fence, then picked him out a few minutes later. What I wanted to say is, I’m not only watching the guy; I’m mostly keeping an eye on the whitetail buck that’s stalking him. He’s a big one, one-fifty or better, helluva rack…and I think he’s got bad intentions.”
Horace and I exchanged a startled look. Had we heard her right? “The buck is stalking the schmuck?”
A stifled snort of held-in laughter came back. “Yep. Tree, I’d like to see this play out. How be we wait to see if our friendly Bottoms Buck can take care of our trespasser for us? What do you say?”
Horace was nodding with enthusiasm. “Sure”. I told her. “If Nimrod gets himself killed, it’ll serve him right.”
With that, we settled in to really watch. Some popcorn would have been nice, but it promised to be a show worth watching even without that. We didn’t spot the buck for a while, but that wasn’t surprising. Whitetail males, especially those who’ve survived long enough to sport a trophy set of antlers, tend to be wily, sneaky fellows. Unlike ol’ Nimrod, I might add; him we could follow as easily as tailing a train down the tracks. Another five minutes passed before Aaronson moved out of the willow tangle and into a small clearing, Elmer Fudding it all the way. Watching through the binoculars, I swore I was sitting in front of a television set. This couldn’t be real. Could it? I started casting around, looking for the aggressive buck…and there it was, slipping up behind the human who dared to insult his home breeding ground with bad hunting technique. What Nimrod lacked in grace and awareness of his surroundings, the Bottoms Buck had in spades. I’ve never hunted without checking my backtrail regularly, but this guy never turned around once.
And then it happened, the scene that made me forever after wish I’d thought to bring along a camcorder. Right smack in the middle of the clearing, Nimrod stopped cold, bending over to peer at something on the ground, perhaps a track or a pile of deer droppings or Bugs Bunny’s home hole. His ass stuck up in the air, the perfect target. The buck couldn’t resist. From a dead silence, positioned thirty-some feet to the rear (pun intended), the deer charged, head lowered. Whitetails can get up to speed in a hurry, and this one did. His antlers had a wide spread, but so did Aaronson’s butt; the two matched up perfectly, numerous needle sharp calcium spikes piercing the man’s buttocks and driving him forward for a dozen yards or more before the big buck’s fierce momentum finally ground to a halt.
By this time Nimrod the dim bulb had realized he was hurt; his screams were most impressive. The buck didn’t pursue the attack, though. We were about to see something that made us doubt our own eyes. Backing water, yanking his antler tines free of his victim’s fragile flesh, the Awesome Ungulate pivoted and trotted back to where the wannabe hunter had dropped his bow. Lowering his head once again, using his antlers with the skill of a heavy equipment operator maneuvering a front end loader, the buck scooped up the bow and headed back into the brush without a backward look, the shooter riding across his antler tines as easily as if they were already mounted on a wall.
Horace and I looked at each other and started laughing. We couldn’t help it. I did manage to get it under control long enough to call Sissy, no longer bothering to whisper. She didn’t answer for a while, had me worried for a couple of minutes, but eventually her voice came through, panting with exertion. “Sorry it (puff) too me a while, boss. (pant) I had to run a little to get in position to see the smackdown, and then that buck just about ran over me, (pant) too.”
“Right as rain. You’re not going to believe this. The bow fell off that deer’s antlers, landed not twenty feet from where I was busy falling on my ass getting out of his way. He didn’t seem to care if I had it, as long as Elmer Fudd didn’t.”
“Excellent. Get out of there, Sis. We’ll be calling the ambulance and the Sheriff in on this one; you don’t need to be seen anywhere in the vicinity.”
“Going going gone.”
Horace called Jennifer, told her to call 911, and then followed me down to see what we could do to stop the man’s bleeding. And his screaming. Which we did, though the wimp was still bitching and whining when the EMT’s got there to start patching him up. We didn’t need to worry about infection; every puncture wound he’d suffered had bled out just fine. With that in mind, we settled for taping gauze pads over the wounds to slow the bleeding, though we’d had to deplete the tracker’s First Aid kit to do it. We also had to restrain the fool before we could get his pants down to assess the wounds in the first place, so it was probably a good thing there weren’t any witnesses watching us as we’d watched him. Must have looked like we were getting ready to rape his bloody butt. Which would have been redundant; he’d caught five tines, a couple of them most likely to the bone.
It took nearly an hour for the first responders to arrive. For the most part, the EMT’s managed to keep their game faces on while they were treating the somewhat overweight and well punctured Nimrod, but upon hearing our story of the attack as we’d seen it happen (abridged version), the deputies were another matter. Snickers were the least of it. By the time Aaronson got out of the hospital, the story would be all over Powell and Granite Counties. If he could survive the public ridicule after all the bragging he’d done, ol’ Elmer Fudd was a tougher man than me.
It was nearly 10:00 p.m. by the time I got home. The girls were holding supper for me, waiting to hear The Rest of the Story. I told it all, the three of us cracking up thirty or forty times in the process. After I told the last bit, about the way Aaronson was still whining even after they’d shot him up with morphine and loaded him into the Life Flight helicopter for the lift to Great Falls, Sissy’s humor suddenly faded.
“Tree,” she said, “I’ve got a confession to make?”
“Oh?” My eyebrow cocked of its own accord. What now?
“You know I told you I’d mastered going full raven, right?”
“Yeah. And that you really couldn’t think why that would do you much good, seeing as how a six foot raven outlined against the sky would make one fine target.”
“Uh huh. So I started working on another animal.”
If my eyes were as wide as Judi’s–“You didn’t.”
“A whitetail buck deer.”
“You did. You really did? The buck we saw thump Elmer’s rump was…you?”
“Uh huh. It took me a minute to get squared away after doing all that and then shifting back to human form, which is why I was panting when I answered your CB call. Sorry about the tale telling. You know, saying the buck about ran over me and all. I didn’t figure we were ready to fill everybody else in on my fledgling abilities.”
Wow. “Cool.” I didn’t know what to say. Then it dawned on me. “You can shapeshift into a deer…with balls?”
“Oh yeah. It’s a real thing; the does were looking awfully good to me out there, and some of them were looking back, too. It’s not overwhelming, but there’s a distinct animal pull when I’m in that form.”
“Wow. Well…that does explain a few things. Such as the delay in answering your CB after you spiked Elmer Fudd. But…why did you do it?” I thought I knew the answer, but I needed to hear it from her.
“Practice. If we’re going to be fighting the Heartbite bunch, I couldn’t afford to go up against them in a new form as a rookie. I needed to know what it felt like to use some of the skills available to that animal.”
That made me really think, but Judi beat me to the obvious question. “Speed,” my pregnant honey said. “You also need speed, right? In shifting between forms?”
“Yeah.” The warrior woman realized I didn’t have any coffee; she got up to get me a mug. “Any time I practice, which as you know is every chance I get, I work on that. Shifting every direction possible, human to raven, raven to human, human to buck, buck to human. And yes, before you ask, I can do buck to raven and vice versa, too. It’s not wiping me out like it did. The buck seems to leave me with a lot of energy. And I’m pretty sure that unlike a natural buck, I won’t need to drop my antlers come February. But I’m stuck in my thinking, you know?”
“What do you mean?” I asked around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
She finally sat down, which was a good thing. She’d been kind of looming. Our mommy to be was already sprawled in her own favorite chair. “Well…I think I can learn more. Maybe a lot more. But the clock is ticking. I don’t have time to add a gazillion different critters to my repertoire between now and February, if Heartbite even waits that long to strike. So I need to pick a really useful form to work on next, and I need help deciding on which one.”
It took us until midnight, kicking it around. Sissy was our Bear Warrior Woman, which would indicate the need for a bear form. Her raven and whitetail forms made it clear that her size at the time of transformation, including clothing and whatever gear she happened to be wearing, produced an animal of equal mass. In other words, she could “bulk up” a form by simply wearing lead lined pants.
That was Judi’s joke, but it made her point. Nude, the mixed race woman’s weight generally held around 170 hard muscled pounds, up 10 from the day we met. Her attire, including boots and weapons, added at least another ten. With that, she could learn to become a 180 pound black bear, not the biggest on record by a long shot, but not a runt either. Even a mere cub possessed extraordinary power, young bears having been observed turning over 300 pound rocks with a single paw. At least, that’s what Wikipedia said. It also said that black bears have good eyesight, better than humans, which was a surprise to me. I’d always thought they were nearsighted, like skunks. They could also hit speeds of 35 mph, comparable to the speedy coyote, but only for short distances. Their sense of smell was unbelievable, seven times as sensitive as a dog’s, and their hearing was sharp too. Quite the critter.
But we rejected the black bear as Sissy’s #1 priority and went with the mountain lion. After we got done ribbing her about becoming a cougar before she was thirty, we got down to analyzing the big cat. The statistics were compelling. A coug could run between 40 and 50 miles per hour, leap up to 18 feet in the air and cover as much as 45 feet forward in a single bound. Sissy’s weight, with or without wearing lead pants, would put her in the upper tier of natural tom cougar weights–and she loved the idea of choosing another male form.
Most importantly, her mountain lion form might even have a chance against Angle’s leopard form, though she’d be giving away some poundage. Okay, yes, she’d need to figure out a way to chomp the bugger’s tail in half before he could sting her with its poison tip. Oh, and the leopard’s head would have to be avoided at all costs, its jaws being far too powerful to play around with. But she’d have speed, which she’d clearly need, and Sissy fought as dirty as anybody.
That decided, we called it a night and got ready for bed, singing,
A cougar she will be
A cougar she will be
Hi ho, the dairy-o
A cougar she will be